When the Brexit referendum result was announced, the creative industries by and large greeted it with dismay. Surveys had previously revealed that the creative industry in general and the design industry in particular was very much in the Remain camp.
What the result may mean for the UK’s ability to attract and retain talent, its impact on funding, on copyright and more generally on ‘brand Britain’ have all been discussed. And from creatives in the Remain camp there has also been a good deal of handwringing about its inability to communicate effectively.
M&C Saatchi and Saatchi and Saatchi have taken the unusual step of releasing some of the ads which they created for the Britain Stronger in Europe group but which never ran, as if to say ‘if only they had let us use this lot, things would have been different’.
Whether or not the posters would have had any effect is open to debate, but what has come out is that due to the internal structures of the Remain campaign, it appears that decision-making was confused and overly-complex, which may have hindered its ability to run powerful ads. There was talk of politicians losing their nerve when it came to greenlighting some of the more controversial executions. Were Cameron et al more reluctant to go for the jugular when it meant attacking colleagues in the Conservative party than they would have been if Labour had been the target? The Tories have hardly held back on the attack ads in previous elections.
On the design side, Pentagram’s Marina Willer seemed to sum up the frustrations and disappointments of many in a post for Eye’s blog. “I felt ashamed and I felt guilty, because I knew that as designers we could have done so much more to avoid the fiasco of Brexit,” she wrote.
But could they? Attitudes toward the EU have been shaped by over 30 years of increasingly hysterical and distorted media coverage. When Boris Johnson was The Telegraph’s Brussels reporter in the 90s he delighted in filing the most exaggerated anti-EU stories imaginable. “Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party,” he has reportedly said.
According to The Times’ Martin Fletcher: “Johnson’s reports also had an amazing, explosive effect on the rest of Fleet Street. They were much more fun than the usual dry and rather complex Brussels fare. News editors on other papers, particularly but not exclusively the tabloids, started pressing their own correspondents to match them. By the time I arrived in Brussels editors only wanted stories about faceless Brussels eurocrats imposing absurd rules on Britain, or scheming Europeans ganging up on us, or British prime ministers fighting plucky rearguard actions against a hostile continent.” Johnson, he said, ended up “campaigning against the cartoon caricature of the EU that he himself created. He is campaigning against a largely fictional EU that bears no relation to reality.”
And it didn’t help that those leading the Remain campaign had themselves spent much of the last decade denigrating the EU when it was politically expedient to do so. Now suddenly they had to make the case for an EU that they had spent so long complaining about.
In such circumstances, it would have taken a campaign of unprecedented persuasiveness to change views hardened over years of misinformation. As so often happens with political advertising, the campaigns that did run tended to reinforce rather than change attitudes. Wolfgang Tillmans’ well-intentioned but insipid posters were never going to change many minds in Sunderland or Stoke.
Perhaps Leave also had the better hand. As has been repeatedly argued in the past week, while Remain attempted to deal in facts (or at least as close to facts as we are going to get in our ‘post-truth’ politics) Leave’s campaign was largely emotional. It had a wealth of powerful populist appeals with which to surf the wave of resentment toward our elites. And like it or not, it had the most effective piece of communication in the campaign.
Ukip’s loathsome Breaking Point poster may have backfired, but Leave’s battle bus and its great lie about the £350m embedded itself in the nation’s conscience. It has since come back to haunt many of those who happily travelled in that bus but at the time it was undeniably effective.
For designers and creatives on the Leave side, their referendum campaign was actually a triumph. Decades of anti-EU propaganda, topped off with a handful of incredibly emotive, powerful calls to arms delivered the win that many on the Brexit side had spent their adult lives working towards.
The Remain camp appears to have thought it was fighting a conventional political campaign and attempted to do so using conventional tactics produced in a conventional way by ad agencies in London. Yet the overriding theme of this contest was unconventional: anti-elite, anti-London, anti-‘expert’.
Using the traditional tools of political campaigning, Remain utterly failed to understand and to persuade those millions of people who feel abandoned by the metropolitan elite. Britain Stronger in Europe had its YouTube channel, but most of the videos have extremely low viewing figures. True, Leave’s bus was as traditional as you can get, but really it was just the none-too-bothered-about-the truth cherry on top of that decades long mission to leave the EU.
What if instead of trying to create polished posters (or the widely-derided Votin’ campaign), Remain had run a ground-up campaign, harnessing the incredible passion and creativity of all its supporters. As with any big political event today, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram was awash with pieces of communication for Remain, many of which were far more powerful and relevant than the officially sanctioned billboards.
We are, we are told, in an era of a new kind of politics. To go along with that, we need to formulate a new kind of political communications. More honest, more engaging, less top-down and less about simplistic messages that most believe are just lies. So perhaps the question should not be what more designers could have done themselves in terms of creating a campaign, but how future campaigns can be so designed as to allow for the involvement of a wider range of voices who will reach those people who currently feel so disillusioned. But after Brexit, will anyone believe what they say anyway?
Correction: Marina Willer’s article was written for Eye and was not originally published on Facebook as previously stated.